SC rules Mayor Gatchalian not liable in 74 deaths in 2015 Kentex fire in Valenzuela City

Published June 23, 2021, 7:05 PM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court (SC) has affirmed the dismissal of both the criminal and administrative charges filed against Valenzuela City Mayor Rexlon T. Gatchalian in connection with the fire in Kentex Manufacturing Corporation, a footwear factory, where 74 persons died and several others injured on May 13, 2015.

Also affirmed was the dismissal of the criminal charges against two city officials – Business Permits and Licensing Office Officer-in-Charge Renchi May Padayao and Licensing Officer IV Eduardo Yco Carreon for lack of probable cause.

Gatchalian and the two city officials were charged criminally with violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and reckless imprudence resulting in homicide under the Revised Penal Code. The Sandiganbayan dismissed the charges for lack of probable cause.

Also affirmed was the Court of Appeals’ (CA) 2016 decision that dismissed the administrative case for grave misconduct and gross neglect of duty filed against Gatchalian. Based on the charges, Gatchalian was ordered dismissed as city mayor by the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB).

The SC decision was written by Associate Justice Rodil V. Zalameda.

The petition on the CA’s dismissal of the criminal charges was filed by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), while the petition on the dismissal of the administrative case was filed by the OMB and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

“In fine, the Court is convinced that the Sandiganbayan correctly dismissed the cases for lack of probable cause and the CA correctly granted Mayor Gatchalian’s petition,” the SC said.

The SC ruled:

“WHEREFORE, in the light of the foregoing, the Court resolves to DENY both Petitions for Review. Accordingly, in G.R. No. 230679, the Court AFFIRMS the Decision dated 28 November 2016 and Resolution dated 20 March 2017 of the Court of Appeals in CA-GR SP No. 144428, while in G.R. Nos, 232228-30, it AFFIRMS the Joint Resolution dated 13 December 2016 and Resolution dated 08 June 2017 of the Sandiganbayan in Criminal Cases Nos. SB-16-CRM-0802, SB-16-CRM-0803 and SB-16-CRM-0804. SO ORDERED.”

The OMB found Gatchalian liable after it was established by the Inter-Agency Anti-Arson Task Force that Kentex was issued business permit on Jan. 15, 2014 despite the lack of Fire Safety Inspection Certificate (FSIC).

But the SC said that Gatchalian “had no hand in the issuance of the permits of Kentex” and all other businesses during the time relevant to the case since this duty has already been delegated to the business permits and licensing office (BPLO).

It said it was Carreon who recommended the approval of the permits while Padayao approved the same for Gatchalian.

“The Court holds that no substantial evidence exists to support the assailed joint resolution of the Ombudsman,” it also said.

On the criminal cases, the OSG claimed that the FSIC is an indispensable requirement under the Fire Code, which cannot be dispensed with on the basis merely of a city ordinance and other issuances.

The SC said: “There is no direct causal connection between the issuance of the business permit and the fire which resulted to the death and injury of the victims.”

It pointed: “The proximate cause of the fire which resulted to the death and injury of the victims was the stockpiling of 400 sacks or ten tons of Supercell Blowing Agent known as Azodicarbonamide, in an area not intended for such storage and adjacent to the welding activities near the stockpile. The molten slags from the welding rod came into contact with one of the sacks.”

In its 2016 decision, the CA ruled that the duty to enforce the Fire Code belongs to the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and not with the local government unit (LGU).

“Mayor Gatchalian complied with his mandated duty under the law. Any finding of negligence on his part, would be in effect imposing upon him a duty that it is not provided by law,” the CA said.

“The procedure provided by the administrative issuances imposes on the BFP in Valenzuela City the duty to inspect and determine compliance with the Fire Code. He (Mayor Gatchalian) merely relies on the report of the BFP,” it added.

In absolving Gatchalian and the two city officials of criminal liability, the Sandiganbayan ruled that they could not be faulted for granting a business permit to Kentex because a city ordinance allows the grant of the business permit even without an FSIC.

It said that while it is true that Valenzuela City, under Mayor Gatchalian and the BLPO officials, issues business permits for the operation of the business establishments within the city, such issuance can be considered provisional as its effectiveness depends on the results of the inspection by BFP-Valenzuela to determine compliance with the Fire Code.

Thus, it said, there was no proof that Mayor Gatchaian neglected his duty.

The CA also said that while BFP-Valenzuela issued a notice to comply to Kentex in 2014, it failed to furnish copy of the notice to BPLO and BFP.

Thus, when Gatchalian issued a business permit to Kentex in Jan. 2015, he and the BPLO officials had no notice of the violations or non-compliance of Kentex with the Fire Code in 2014, it added.